Argentina: Ten years of workers' control

November 5, 2011
Workers' cooperative at the Zanon factory.

On September 30, 2001, in the midst of one of the worst economic crises in Argentine history, the owners of the Zanon ceramic factory announced plans to switch off the furnaces.

In response, union delegates occupied the plant in the southern province of Neuquen. The next day, workers arrived to join the occupation ― frustrating plans to sell off the machinery.

As Argentina's economic crisis deepened, leading to the overthrow of five presidents in one week in December 2001, this new experiment in working-class resistance (a factory without bosses) was replicated in hundreds of Argentine factories.


But 10 years on, it is fair to say that Zanon has been a unique experience.

Ceramica Zanon was opened in 1979 under a military dictatorship that lasted until 1983.

By 1983, workers had created the Neuquen Ceramic Workers and Employees Union (SOECN). They won their first important victory in 1996 when factory delegates organised a strike to stop a worker being sacked.

However, by 2000, the first signs of financial troubles began to appear in Zanon. The next year, many workers had their jobs suspended due to the "lack of basic goods”.

Workers responded by staging a 34-day strike, forcing management to pay workers for lost working hours.

On August 4, 2001, the union called for a national meeting of workers to discuss a unified response to the growing economic crisis.

In Zanon, this took the form of a workers' occupation.

Factory occupied

The company sacked all 380 employees, but workers burned management's letters and marched on state parliament to demand justice.

When the company locked out all workers, they responded by occupying the plant.

In 2002, a committee was established with Zanon workers, representatives from the unemployed workers' movement, and delegates from unions representing education, public sector, health and building workers.

By March, workers had restarted four furnaces. The first 20,000 m2 of tiles were produced under workers' control.

With production expanding, the workers' cooperative employed ten more workers in April. They were selected from the unemployed workers' organisations.

Zanon workers were also present at the first congress of occupied factories organised in Buenos Aires that month.

In 2003, 30 more jobs were created and production reached 120,000 m2 of tiles a month.

On April 5, an attempt to remove workers from the factory was repelled by a mass community mobilisation.

A proposed bill, ”Expropriation under workers management and control", was handed to state parliament during 2003. The bill was supported by 50,000 signatures.

Nationwide alliance

In 2004, a nationwide alliance of occupied factories was formed, Factory Without Bosses(FASINPAT). Another proposed bill was presented to the national parliament, and a permanent tent was establish in front of the parliament.

In 2005, a spate of death threats against Zanon workers and their families, including an attack against one workers' wife, threatened a bleak year.

However, a swift response in the form of strikes and demonstrations organised by unions, the convening of a National Workers Summit in Zanon in April, and statutory changes to SOECN turned the situation around.

By the end of the year, Zanon was declared bankrupt. Temporary administration of the factory was officially handed over to the workers' cooperative.

In 2006, parliament failed to live up to its promise to deal with the proposed bill to expropriate the occupied factories. Workers responded by handing over a new, more radical proposal.

In October, the government extended the temporary administration rights granted to Zanon workers.

Two big events marked 2007: a teacher was killed at a protest against the state government and a witness involved in the trial of a key figures in the military dictatorship was kidnapped.

The factory workers took part in demonstrations and strikes around these issues.

Production at Zanon continued to grow steadily, reaching 400,000 m2 of tiles a month. This allowed the workers' cooperative to expand the number of workers to 470.

In 2007, Zanon began exporting tiles.

The period of temporary administration by the workers' cooperative officially ended in 2008, but the government and courts did not intervene. The workers increased their struggle for Zanon's expropriation.

In 2009, another ceramic factory, Ceramica del Sur, was closed by its managers. Workers reopened it on the basis of Zanon‘s experience.

Today, those workers are part of SOECN and have established a cooperative to run the factory.

In August, the state parliament passed a bill expropriating the company and handing it to the workers' cooperative to manage.

Laboratory of workers' control

This “laboratory of workers control” is a beacon of hope for workers in Argentina and internationally.

Zanon workers have shown it is possible to take over factories and replace bosses with collective decision-making in the form of workers' assemblies.

It has also shown the importance of building solidarity networks. Zanon's survival was due not only to the workers' determination, but also active community support.

Solidarity has been a two-way street: of the roughly 400,000 m2 of tiles produced each month, 10% is given to those in the local community who need them most. The factory has provided jobs to 230 unemployed people.

The workers' cooperative also helped build a medical centre in a poor suburb in 2005, which the government had been promising for 20 years.

As a result of these community links, two leaders of the Zanon workers' were elected to state parliament this year as candidates from the Left Front ― an alliance of far left groups.

SOECN assistant secretary Raul Godoy, one of those elected, said: "Our experience has been a very good one for the workers but a very bad one for the bosses and the political powers.

“In Zanon, we have demonstrated that there is an alternative: we don’t have to put up with sackings, suspensions and unemployment. The only condition is understanding that a factory should not be run for profit but for social good.

"We didn’t invent the idea of workers' control, instead we learned from previous experiences [around the world] ... Self-management is taking over the production and planning and ensuring everything that occurs is the result of a democratic decision.

“That was exactly what was lost in the Soviet Union, were workers' control was replaced by a bureaucrats.”

Godoy said: "All of this took time, and the main problem was to break the mental chains that exist in our head. When you can see that things can be done, workers' creativity begins to appear.

“You always have to be patient, not everyone breaks the mental chain at the same time. Some still are waiting for the boss to tell them what to do. It is a permanent struggle to ensure that the control belongs to the assembly.

"We had to discover many secrets, production, commerce even finance. But the main message is 'yes we can'. We have demonstrated that we don’t need bosses, owners, supervisor or bureaucrats.

"We didn’t want this factory for ourselves, but as a social good. We don’t want to become bosses, we want to be workers that produce to serve the community.

"We know that we can’t liberate ourselves alone. Our destiny is united with others like us. We, the workers, are not responsible for the crisis. We can’t get in a race to survive by destroying other workers’ life.

"Our struggle is political. In the assembly, there are different thoughts, but we have a common enemy that is political ... We want to change this society based on exploitation.

“It is unjust because it is geared towards a few making profits, not the needs of everyone. Everyone is sinking in the crisis, but there too few boats. This crisis is also affecting Zanon, but we have principles that we respect."

Alejandro Lopez, the other MP elected from Zanon, added: “These 10 years of Zanon have meant a change in consciousness for everyone ... In the beginning, we fought for the positions, but we were learning the principle of class solidarity.

"We are writing part of the history of the working-class movement, about the power of organised workers."


Why don't we do this in Australia? Are there any workers' cooperatives in Australia?

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